Monday, December 25, 2017

In a Great America

Sometimes, with all the criticism flying around, it's worth writing down the world you wish for. Here's an ongoing draft of my version.

In a great America, people would learn from the "Yes, and..." of theater improv, and look for ways to make something work, rather than come up with all the reasons why it won't.

In a great America, difference would be welcomed rather than feared. 

In a great America, regulation would not only prevent bad things from happening, but also make it more likely that good things will happen.

In a great America, truth would travel farther and speak more loudly than lies.

In a great America, people would direct as much skepticism inward as outward.

In a great America, we'd be producers first, consumers second.

In a great America, future consequence would matter.

In a great America, people would care as much about public space as private space.

In a great America, all packaging would be universally recyclable.

In a great America, people would try to repair things rather than just throw them out at the first sign of imperfection.

In a great America, we'd work with nature, and give back to nature as much as we take.

In a great America, all sports would celebrate athleticism and teamwork, rather than the capacity to inflict pain on others.

In a great America, people would find the mate they want, rather than the mate they want to change.

In a great America, men would feel permitted to be empathetic and women to be emphatic.

In a great America, men would listen, and ask for directions.

In a great America, people would be comfortable in their skins, and wear themselves rather than their inhibitions.

In a great America, the good that people do would get as much attention as the bad they do.

In a great America, God would not be used to rationalize horrific acts, or to rationalize inaction.

In a great America, those who believe in God would acknowledge that evolution is the way God creates.

In a great America, people would take what's best from religious texts, and leave what's worst.

In a great America, quality of life would matter as much as quantity.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Review of Emma Marris's TED Talk--Species and Spin

For years I've been writing critiques of a false narrative about invasive species that has recurrently found its way into books, newspaper articles and opeds. A cluster of books came out between 2011 and 2015, claiming that invasive species are not a threat after all, and may even be our saviors. You can find this applecart-spilling lineup on and elsewhere, beginning with Emma Marris's "The Rambunctious Garden" in 2011, followed by "Where Do Camels Belong", "The New Wild", and "Beyond the War on Invasive Species".

I've read all of one, parts of others, and have been astonished at their faulty logic and brazen tone, as they dismiss habitat restoration and (usually unnamed) invasion biologists with a sweep of the hand. The books deliver a big payoff for uninformed readers, who get to look down on supposedly stuffy, self-deceived scientists, while being relieved of worrying about a big problem that, according to the authors, isn't a problem after all.

Though the authors would not welcome the comparison, similar emotional payoffs can be had by denying human-caused climate change, or supporting a candidate who dismisses those with experience and promises to magically solve a nation's problems. This is how polarization is maintained in America (and how democracy's pillars begin to crumble), by recasting consensus as conformity, expertise as arrogance, and then cherry-picking evidence to suit one's ideological needs. The authors present themselves as tough-minded skeptics, bucking the tide, but turn out to have directed all their skepticism outwards, allowing their own misconceptions to prosper unquestioned.

Earlier this year, I scanned the internet to see if the authors of these books were continuing to downplay the threat posed by invasive species. The main thing I found was a 2016 TED talk by Emma Marris, entitled "Nature is everywhere--we just need to learn to see it."

It's a well-delivered talk, but anyone with knowledge of the subject will spot the telltale spin, conflation, and omissions that lead the audience to a counterfeit "A-Ha!" moment. In the talk, Marris claims that weedy urban lots are "arguably more wild" than national parks. Weedlots, she claims, are the true wilderness, because there is no human intervention, while national parks are often carefully managed. Nature's diversity is defined as a straight numbers game of how many different species can be found in a given location. All landscapes are sweepingly categorized as "humanized", regardless of whether the landscape is an elevated train track surrounded by buildings and concrete in Philadelphia, or a rainforest inhabited by indigenous tribes.

There's a downplaying of the deeper ecological interconnections that develop through co-evolution. Marris dismisses the management of national parks as an effort to make them "look natural", whereas land managers and ecologists see the re-introduction of bison and wolves, or the planting of rust-resistant whitebark pine seedlings, not as a superficial visual tweak but as an effort to restore ecological function and health.

To suggest that an urban weedlot is "self-willed" and more wild than a managed national park is to misunderstand the human influence on landscapes. Some of our impacts on the world are intentional, others unintentional. Marris seems to consider the collateral damage of human expansion--the accidental introduction of nonnative species, the altering of hydrology caused by urbanization, the displacement of key species like wolves and bison--as natural acts, while the intentional effort to undo these alterations is labeled as unnatural.

I would argue the opposite, that nature predates humans in America, and that the profound ecological relationships and functionality developed over those millions of years do not disappear under the label "humanized" as soon as people arrive. Elements of that original wild nature persist to varying degrees. Some elements were enhanced, for instance by the American Indians' use of fire in the landscape, and other elements have been eliminated altogether, like the megafauna that were hunted to extinction. Weedlots can only be called wild and self-willed if we ignore the setting, which is human-based. The hydrology, the substrate, the sorts of seeds that land there--all these are the product of past human activity, be it intentional or unintentional. There is spontaneity, as the plants sprout and grow, and the bees visit, but the context is largely orchestrated by people past and present. This is far different from the Amazon, where indigenous tribes may influence nature, but have left most of nature's functional components in place.

People are both part of nature and separate from it. We can work with nature's processes or fight against them. Using our knowledge, we can mend and nurture wildness through intentional action, or further alter the remnants of a nature that once sprung from the ground without any human promptings or orchestration.

There are several values I hold in common with Emma Marris. She calls for people to seek out and enjoy the nature all around them. The watershed association I founded in Durham, NC was inspired by a desire to provide urban dwellers with mini-preserves a short walk from their homes. Marris believes nature is made to be touched, not treated as a museum. Amen to that. She makes a good point that kids, just discovering nature, need not be told that the flower they're holding in their hand is a non-native invasive plant. I was weeding a large, mostly native wet meadow planted in a park's detention basin this past spring when a kid came along, grabbed a dandelion seedhead, told me it was a wishing flower, and sent the seeds flying with his breath. Though dandelions were one of the weeds I had been undercutting with a shovel that afternoon, I held my tongue and let him enjoy his love of the dandelion. Kids will learn soon enough, when their parents curse the fig buttercup that's taking over their yard, or a fishing trip is undone by a combination of habitat degradation and invasive species. My first remembered encounter with invasive species, as a kid in Wisconsin, was a trip to nearby Turtle Creek, which had appeared on the map as a sweet rivulet in the countryside. What we found was a muddy creek degraded by cattle and carp.

It's one thing for Marris to want to protect and nurture kids' delight in nature, but another to downplay or deny among adults the threat posed by invasive species.

I had an interesting interaction recently with Ms. Marris. In the TED talk, she claimed that a Finnish ecologist named Illka Hanski let his yard grow up, and several years later found "375 plant species, including 2 endangered species". Very impressive, and in the talk's trajectory, that was the moment that sealed the deal for the audience. You could feel that collective "aha" moment, when the "let it go" approach to nature seemed a truly powerful tool for achieving plant diversity. But the number sounded wrong to me, and sure enough, in an interview Ms. Marris did later last year, the story is told differently. The interviewer says:
 "In Helsinki, researcher Ilkka Hanski stopped mowing his 16,000-square-foot lawn and found, after several years, 375 species of animals and plants — including two endangered insects." 
Since soil itself is packed with species, we have no idea how many plant species were in the yard. I emailed Emma Marris, and she immediately acknowledged having misspoken, and has added a footnote to the TED talk pointing out the mistake. 

Unfortunately, showing how misinformation can have a ripple effect, the TED staff had appeared to use the false figure in Marris's TED talk to suggest greater biodiversity in urban lots than in national parks:
"...untended patches of grass and weeds growing in abandoned lots and around deserted buildings. (It may surprise you that that patch is most likely more biologically diverse than an entire national park.)"
The TED staff include Marris's talk in a group of speakers who supposedly "debunked received wisdom, looked critically at common knowledge — and restarted conversations we thought were closed." What in fact happened in this case is that misinformation was used to artificially create debate. Our appetite for surprise and a dramatic "overturning of the applecart" creates a market for false controversy.

Marris had the TED staff also remove the "It may surprise you ..." language, but the TED talk can't be modified to remove the false claim about diversity, and now has over a million hits.

My experience with diversity is the opposite of Marris's cherry-picked example. The roadsides of Durham, NC, where I used to live, tend to be dominated by a few nonnative grass species. But here and there under the powerlines along old 2-lane roads, where soil was left undisturbed, probably for centuries, and woody growth is kept mowed down, can be found patches of native piedmont prairie teaming with plant diversity. The soil was undisturbed because farmers wouldn't have plowed the roadsides, and mowing under powerlines is a serendipitous stand-in for periodic fires that would have swept through in centuries past, preventing woody vegetation from shading out the herbaceous species. Thus, serendipitous human actions have allowed an indigenous plant community to survive from an era that was far more wild than our own.

My email exchange with Emma Marris was friendly enough. She is an accomplished environmental writer who is commendably working to immerse kids in nature. But I did ultimately feel a need to point out the ways in which she uses spin, blurred distinctions, cherry-picking, and omission to undermine consensus and create false controversy. That brought the email exchange to an end, but it serves as a good summary of what still plagues her writing about invasive species:
"I'd say I agree with you on some things, and find other aspects of your TED presentation problematic. People should look for nature close to home, and not be hands off about it, and lectures on the dangers of nonnative invasive species are best saved for some moment other than when a boy is connecting with nature for the first time. The rest--that park stewardship is intended to make the park "look natural", that all landscapes touched lightly or heavily by humans can be categorized as "humanized", that diversity is primarily a numbers game, that an urban lot is "self-willed" when the circumstances are largely dictated by people, and that deeper interactions such as herbivory or lack thereof don't bear mention--is problematic. Your talk made me remember my fascination with roadside weeds when I was first learning plant names, but I don't see you giving the deeper interactions that evolve over time between species their due."

Postscript: Googling Ilkka Hanski did uncover a useful reference to him in a David Suzuki Reader, in which Hanski had found that "people surrounded by a greater diversity of life ... were less likely to exhibit allergies." It sounds similar to the contention that kids' immune systems will be improved by playing in dirt. All of this, if true, is good fodder for those of us not enamored with the sterility of suburban landscapes. 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Slavery and Fossil Fuels: Unethical Energy, Then and Now

Preface: Actors study for a role in part by seeking in themselves aspects of the character they wish to portray onstage. That technique, or instinct, could be used to more deeply understand a time long past. When Princeton University began to look into the role slavery played in its past, researchers and archivists found all sorts of interesting documents, then recently invited the public to take a look. Attending events, I couldn't help but exercise the actor's approach, looking for aspects of today that can help us more vividly understand a seemingly distant era. Even without considering how slavery's long shadow extends into our century, the parallels between past and present were so numerous that I felt an eerie connection with that antebellum era. Most eerie is the tacit acceptance of a disturbing status quo. There's a great risk in not talking about our dependency on unethical energy. It nearly split a nation in two, and now threatens a civilization's future. 

The Slavery in Princeton project’s revelations have blurred distinctions between good and evil, North and South. For me, they also blur distinctions between past and present. The symposium will rightly focus on racial injustice, but additional insight can come from comparing economies dependent on unethical energy, slave-based or otherwise.

To make the point, here's what I've learned thus far from Slavery in Princeton's events, exhibits, and website, plus some additional reading:

Slaves were sold on Nassau Street. Slavery was common in Princeton, a part of everyday life, and seldom discussed. The university benefitted from wealth generated by the slave economy. Nationally, the Bible and junk science were used to rationalize the continued use of slaves and to claim that victims were actually beneficiaries. Those most victimized by slavery had no vote. Those calling for a rapid end to slave use were considered radical. New Jersey chose to phase out slavery over many decades. Everyone supported the slave economy by buying its products. A few people of conscience sought to buy slave-free goods, but struggled with issues of higher cost and verification. A technological breakthrough made slavery much more profitable as time went on, expanding U.S. exports and stiffening political resistance to ending the slave economy. Ending slave use would mean stripping slave owners of the tremendous wealth bound up in the slaves themselves. The political party advocating continued slave use became radicalized, in part because demographic trends might erode its power. That Party chose to secede rather than face the unethical nature of the slave economy. Even after slave use was abolished, its harmful effects would linger for centuries.

Now, reread the above paragraph, substituting the word "fossil fuel" for slave and slavery. The technological breakthrough, by the way, was the cotton gin then, fracking now, and secession was from the Union then, from reality-based thinking now.

There are, of course, important distinctions. Slavery in the U.S. was an intentional subjugation, a race-based exploitation of one person by another, with much of the overt or covert cruelty playing out in real time.

Climate change, by contrast, is collective, unintentional and impersonal, essentially collateral damage from the carbon-based economy. Its veiled, crowd-sourced form of cruelty is largely indirect, displaced in distance and time, disguised within the natural variations of the weather. Climate change most directly targets earth, which can be thought of as a body, physically scarred by extraction, its oceans acidified, its land and sea made feverish by a 40% increase in carbon dioxide. These radical changes to atmosphere and oceans cripple nature and increasingly endanger people through a devastating intensification of winds, floods, droughts, and heatwaves.

And yet we drive down freeways, which function as climate change factories, with the best of motivations--to get to work, run an errand, or do a favor--exiling awareness of collective consequence. To more deeply understand slavery's grip on society, consider how unethical energy continues to trap even free people in dependencies that can be viewed as both perfectly normal and unconscionable.

Background readings that I found helpful can be found at this link

Friday, December 01, 2017

Rationalizing Extinction--an Oped by Alexander Pyron

I know. A lot of you have been feeling guilty about how we humans are causing the 6th great extinction event in earth's history. 40% of all species on earth are predicted to slip quietly into history. But we're good people! For the most part. How could this happen? Well, no use wringing your hands, you hand wringers, you. Because, voila!, extinction turns out to be good, after all, according to R. Alexander Pyron, an associate professor at George Washington University who is trying his hand at opinion writing. Why change our destructive behavior when we can change our ethical standards instead? Demonizing the human race is so last century. Time to rationalize! Time to get anthropocentric about the Anthropocene.

A colleague had sent me the link. The headline (written by the newspaper's editors) sounded like a troll from an online comment section. "We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution: The only creatures we should go out of our way to protect are Homo sapiens."

"Cool!", I exclaimed, looking at the headline on my phone while standing in the parking lot of a nature preserve, getting ready to lead a nature walk on a Sunday afternoon. I shared the provocative title with others who had gathered. We reveled in relief as all that species-guilt we'd been feeling for as long as we could remember drained away, melting into the pavement beneath our feet.

By chance, I'd been analyzing a book with a similar message, "Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, " by Chris D. Thomas. The book may well have emboldened Pyron to write his opinion piece, and given the Washington Post a rationale for publishing it. Both the book and the oped seduce uninformed readers by upsetting the applecart of mainstream thinking, and by letting the reader off the hook. Remember Dr. Strangelove and "How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb?" Doctors Thomas and Pyron are doing something similar with the Anthropocene, but with no sense of satire.

Much of their thinking is rooted in books published some years ago--by Marris, Pearce, Orion and others--that vilified habitat restoration and invasion biologists and portrayed invasive species as a blessing in disguise. I thought that line of thinking had long since died of its own strained logic, but Thomas's book appeared this summer, presenting the old arguments in an even more nihilistic form.

If nothing else, Pyron's essay is useful for pointing out some recurrent habits of this genre, which seeks to undermine our trust in mainstream scientific thought. Below are some typical techniques, with quotes from his opinion piece:

Portray the “Other” as emotional, sentimental, and self-serving. In this case, the "Other" is mainstream biological and environmental thinking about habitat restoration and extinction.
  • “Yet we are obsessed with reviving the status quo ante.”
  • “And if biodiversity is the goal of extinction fearmongers, ...“
Claim that working to restore nature, or otherwise expend conscious effort to reduce humanity's negative impacts, is a waste of time and money.
  • “But the impulse to conserve for conservation’s sake has taken on an unthinking, unsupported, unnecessary urgency.”
  • “Conserving a species … serves to discharge our own guilt, but little else.”
  • “whatever effort we make to maintain the current climate will eventually be overrun by the inexorable forces of space and geology.”
Declare the conservationist Other’s words to be meaningless, either by erasing distinctions or mocking the Other’s words with quotation marks.
  • "There is no such thing as an 'endangered species,' except for all species."
  • “We are a part of the biosphere just like every other creature, and our actions are just as volitional, their consequences just as natural.”
  • “alien species will disrupt formerly 'pristine' native ecosystems.”
Manage guilt or purge it altogether.
  • “extinction does not carry moral significance, even when we have caused it.”
  • “Humans should feel less shame about molding their environment to suit their survival needs.”
  • "Conservation is needed for ourselves and only ourselves."
Play tricks with time frame. Sure, we're doing harm to nature, but all will be fine a million years from now. Can you imagine such reasoning being used for any other problem we face?
  • "Our concern, in other words, should not be protecting the animal kingdom, which will be just fine. Within a few million years..."
  • “If this means fewer dazzling species, fewer unspoiled forests, less untamed wilderness, so be it. They will return in time."
Cherry pick evidence. Oftentimes, one positive trait is used to supposedly compensate for all the negative traits of invasive species. The positive trait might be a pretty flower, or nitrogen-fixing ability, or erosion control.
  • “ Studies have shown that when humans introduce invasive plant species, native diversity sometimes suffers, but productivity — the cycling of nutrients through the ecosystem — frequently increases. Invasives can bring other benefits, too: Plants such as the Phragmites reed have been shown to perform better at reducing coastal erosion and storing carbon than native vegetation in some areas, like the Chesapeake.”
Most writings in this genre use extinction as the only measure of damage to native species, but Pyron's oped is even more heartless, claiming that extinction is all part of the game, neither good nor bad.
  • “Invasion and extinction are the regenerative and rejuvenating mechanisms of evolution, the engines of biodiversity.”
  • "The only reason we should conserve biodiversity is for ourselves, to create a stable future for human beings."
Make biodiversity purely a numbers game; minimize or ignore the evolution of complex interactions between species
  • "South Florida, where about 140 new reptile species accidentally introduced by the wildlife trade are now breeding successfully? No extinctions of native species have been recorded, and, at least anecdotally, most natives are still thriving. The ones that are endangered, such as gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, are threatened mostly by habitat destruction. Even if all the native reptiles in the Everglades, about 50, went extinct, the region would still be gaining 90 new species — a biodiversity bounty."
Present evolution as winners and losers
  • “Extinction is the engine of evolution, the mechanism by which natural selection prunes the poorly adapted and allows the hardiest to flourish. “
Overall, Pyron's writing has an "abandon ship" quality. Ayn Rand's "In Defense of Selfishness" comes to mind. Libertarianism, as described at, envisions "a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others." This sort of thinking leaves us helpless to prevent collectively created crises. Opposition to collective action to slow or prevent climate change then necessitates a way to rationalize the tragic consequences. Pyron's political views are unknown, but he essentially extends the libertarian view of the individual to the species as a whole. Hope is invested not in proactive avoidance of disaster, but in the endgame: "we will find a way to adapt." And if that fails, then come back in a million years. Everything's sure to be fine then.

Update: Alexander Pyron later wrote an apology on facebook